Tag Archives: 1857

Van Gogh and Hiroshige: Plum Blossoms and Pink Skies

12 Mar

“Just think of that; isn’t it almost a new religion that these Japanese teach us, who are so simple and live in nature as if they themselves were flowers? And we wouldn’t be able to study Japanese art, it seems to me, without becoming much happier and more cheerful, and it makes us return to nature, despite our education and our work in a world of convention.”

Hiroshige, Plum Park in Kameido, 1857

This beautiful scene of an orchard in bloom, “Plum Park in Kameido”, is probably the most famous print made by the Japanese Ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Hiroshige in 1857. It is the thirtieth print from the collection of 119 ukiyo-e prints “One Hundred Famous Views of Edo” which were mostly done by Hiroshige and, after Hiroshige’s death in 1858, the rest of the prints were done by his successor Hiroshige II. Around ten thousand copies were made of each of these prints and after Japan reopened to the West in 1853 these prints travelled even to France where painters such as Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh and many, many other painters got their hands on them and used them as inspiration. Vincent van Gogh not only took inspiration from these prints, but also made copies. In many of his letters, Vincent mentions his love for Japan and ukiyo-e prints, here is an example, from a letter to his brother Theo, 23 or 24 September 1888:

If we study Japanese art, then we see a man, undoubtedly wise and a philosopher and intelligent, who spends his time — on what? — studying the distance from the earth to the moon? — no; studying Bismarck’s politics? — no, he studies a single blade of grass.

But this blade of grass leads him to draw all the plants — then the seasons, the broad features of landscapes, finally animals, and then the human figure. He spends his life like that, and life is too short to do everything.

Just think of that; isn’t it almost a new religion that these Japanese teach us, who are so simple and live in nature as if they themselves were flowers?

And we wouldn’t be able to study Japanese art, it seems to me, without becoming much happier and more cheerful, and it makes us return to nature, despite our education and our work in a world of convention. (…) I envy the Japanese the extreme clarity that everything in their work has. It’s never dull, and never appears to be done too hastily. Their work is as simple as breathing, and they do a figure with a few confident strokes with the same ease as if it was as simple as buttoning your waistcoat. Ah, I must manage to do a figure with a few strokes. That will keep me busy all winter. Once I have that, I’ll be able to do people strolling along the boulevards, the streets, a host of new subjects.

Vincent van Gogh, Flowering Plum Tree (after Hiroshige), 1887

Since we are now in the time of the year when the white and pink blossoms are starting to adorn the sad and bare three branches, these paintings have been on my mind. Van Gogh painted a copy of Hiroshige’s “Plum Park in Kameido” sometime in September or October 1887 whilst he was still in Paris. As you can see, Hiroshige used a very interesting perspective here and the entire plum orchard in bloom is seen through the tree branches of the plum tree in the foreground. The plum tree in the foreground is very cheekily obscuring our view, as if we are gazing at something forbidden, something mysterious on the other side of the fence. In the background, many plum trees in bloom are painted. In Van Gogh’s copy the tree tops of those plum trees in the background are especially dreamy, they look like soft, yellowish clouds, and the gradation of that yellowish-white colour to the red of the sky is quite exquisite. The grass of the orchard is a flat green surface with almost no visible brushstrokes. Van Gogh usually loved layers of colour and rough brushstrokes, but here he was inspired by the flatness of Hiroshige’s print and tried to mimic it.

Vincent van Gogh, View of Arles with Trees in Blossom (Orchard in Bloom with View of Arles), 1889

Vincent van Gogh, The Flowering Orchard, 1888

And to end, here are two more van Gogh’s paintings of orchards in a Japanese style and another excerpt from Vincent’s letter, this time to Emile Bernard, which mentions his love for Japanese art, written in Arles, on Sunday 18 March 1888:

My dear Bernard,

Having promised to write to you, I want to begin by telling you that this part of the world seems to me as beautiful as Japan for the clearness of the atmosphere and the gay colour effects. The stretches of water make patches of a beautiful emerald and a rich blue in the landscapes, as we see it in the Japanese prints. Pale orange sunsets making the fields look blue — glorious yellow suns. (…) Perhaps there’d be a real advantage in emigrating to the south for many artists in love with sunshine and colour. The Japanese may not be making progress in their country, but there’s no doubt that their art is being carried on in France.

John Everett Millais – Portrait of Sophie Gray

28 Oct

“I see at intervals the glance of a curious sort of bird through the close set bars of a cage: a vivid, restless, resolute captive is there; were it but free, it would soar cloud-high.”

(Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre)

John Everett Millais, Portrait of Sophie Gray, 1857

Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais painted his wife Effie Millais’ younger sister Sophie on many occasions; most notably in the beautiful painting “Autumn Leaves” and “Spring” which are both atmospheric, rich in details and colour, but this “Portrait of Sophie Gray” is by far the most beautiful portrait of Sophie that Millais has painted and perhaps one of the most beautiful portraits I have ever seen. Sophie is just gorgeous to me and her face is painted exquisitely, full of colour and emotion, poetry and music. Her rosy cheeks are like ripe crimson apples. In her blue eyes I see the sea; the sublime roaring sea with its storms and wild waves, you could drown in their blueness, so intense and so alluring, so mysterious and so enticing. And yet her lips, so cherry red, so full and so inviting of a kiss, are pressed together. She is silent and shall not speak. While her eyes intrigue the viewer, her lips make sure that all her secrets are well kept. There is a melancholy charm painted all over that face, face framed with masses of long auburn hair which seems to flow endlessly. Sophie was fifteen, going on sixteen when this portrait was painted and to me it stands as a border between her childhood and the girlhood that is before her, with all its mysteries and curiosities. There is a definite sensual touch of the portrait; her crimson lips and her slender white neck, so exposed to our eyes, and how coyly the white lace touches it. I see Sophie’s awakening when I gaze at this portrait, she is standing at the doorway and looking into the world that awaits her fills her with melancholy. Her deep blue eyes can already see into the future and anticipate the life’s woes. There is a heart woven on her dark blue dress. Who will break your heart Sophie? Who will fill your blue eyes with tears? Who will infuse you with sadness? You know you will suffer and you know it is inevitable. You cannot avoid it Sophie. When I gaze into her eyes, this quote from Charlotte Bronte’s novel “Jane Eyre” comes to my mind, it’s something that Mr Rochester tells to Jane when he gazes into her eyes: “I see at intervals the glance of a curious sort of bird through the close set bars of a cage: a vivid, restless, resolute captive is there; were it but free, it would soar cloud-high.” Sophie, October’s child of woe, a Scorpio girl born on 28th October 1843, grew up to be a miserable woman, suffering from anorexia and melancholy. Despite the deep fear of marriage planted in her by her older sister Effie, both by words and through observation of her sister’s despair, Sophie did marry and she died at the age of thirty-eight, probably as a result from anorexia. Her daughter Beatrix died six years later at the age of fourteen.

Henry Peach Robinson – Fading Away

28 Apr

The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.

(Edgar Allan Poe)

Henry Peach Robinson, Fading Away, 1858

I found myself thinking about death these days, and naturally the first things that came to my mind were the poems, the paintings and this Victorian era photograph taken by Henry Peach Robinson in 1858. “Fading Away” is a very romantical and elegantly sad photograph which shows a pale and frail young girl dying from consumption, or perhaps from a broken heart. She is surrounded by her a family members, all of which play a different role in the composition of the photograph and also in expressing emotion. The male figure, presumably the father, turned his back towards the girl, unable to face the painful truth; death of his beloved daughter. Perhaps he is trying to suppress his tears, and perhaps he feels powerless because he failed to protect her from the ultimate enemy: death.  This photograph perfectly encapsulated the morbidly romantical fascination with death which came to define the Victorian era. For modern viewers the aesthetic conveyed is very Victorian, but the Victorians felt very differently about Robinson’s photograph. It received mixed reviews from the public; some found it shocking that the photographer would invade such an intimate, private moment. The Victorians knew the distinction between the private life and the outside world. And also, the photograph is actually an early example of photomontage and Robinson. was a pioneer of that. I am as shocked as the Victorians were because the final result is so realistic and I would never have assumed that these individuals weren’t in the same room at the same moment together.

Poets of Romanticism expressed an inexplicable longing for death because every day life, with its struggles and ugliness, was far from their ideal of Beauty. “Transient pleasures as a vision seem, and yet we think the greatest pain’s do die”, wrote John Keats in his poem “On Death”. Percy Bysshe Shelley was equally dramatic, utterly obsessed with death, he saw it as the state of ultimate happiness and perfection. The Victorian era romanticised death, especially the slow, staged, almost theatre-like moment of death. And what actress to play the role of a person soon to be departed than a beautiful, pale, virginal girl who had tasted none of life’s sweetness and joys and already at such a tender age death was to take her away. It’s like a rose forever preserved in its loveliest stage of bud! Never blooming fully, and thus never withering either. Poe was right: death of a young girl is indeed the most beautiful topic for art. And here is John Keats’ poem “On Death” written in 1814 in a letter to his brother Thomas who was, just like the poor girl in the photograph, suffering from consumption which would ultimately be Keats’s end as well:

On Death

Can death be sleep, when life is but a dream,
And scenes of bliss pass as a phantom by?
The transient pleasures as a vision seem,
And yet we think the greatest pain’s to die.

How strange it is that man on earth should roam,
And lead a life of woe, but not forsake
His rugged path; nor dare he view alone
His future doom which is but to awake.

Henry Peach Robinson, She Never Told Her Love, 1857

“She never told her love,

But let concealment,

like a worm i’ the bud,

Feed on her damask cheek”

(Shakespeare, Twelfth Night II,iv,111-13)

Robinson’s photograph “She Never Told Her Love”, taken in 1857, served as a study for the girl in “Fading Away”. Resting on soft big pillow, the girl truly does appear to be fading away. Her hair is spread on the pillow, her hands clasped on her lap, her lips ever so softly parted. This study’s focus is on the girl, she is alone in her pictorial space, alone with her woe, illness and that poor broken heart. In “Fading Away” she is surrounded by family, and even though the study has the intimacy of the girl alone, I feel like the characters add to the drama and the story behind the photograph.

It is interesting to think of the way poets and artists of Romanticism and the Victorians saw death, and how our culture sees it. The Victorian era attitude towards death is seen as “morbid” nowadays and I don’t quite see why. Every living thing on earth is bound to die one day, so why is death such a taboo topic, such a shocking morbid “Gothic” thing? It seems like everything is so sugarcoated nowadays; idealised, filtered, posed, set-up, and artificial and hence such a pure, dark truth such as death is hard to digest. Death comes without invitations, it cannot be ignored, postponed, sugarcoated, it changes everything, it is beyond our control. Perhaps we are too entitled today and we subconsciously feel that, along with our generally good standard of living (at least in the Western countries), immortality is also our god-given right, and it isn’t. Can’t we go back to times when death was romanticised and one could truly die of a broken heart!? I feel like I can relate to Romantic visions of the death much more, and also this beautiful poem “Goodbye, my friend, goodbye” by the Russian poet Sergei Yesenin (1895-1925) who ended his life not by consumption or broken heart, but by suicide:

Goodbye, my friend, goodbye
My love, you are in my heart.
It was preordained we should part
And be reunited by and by.

Goodbye: no handshake to endure.
Let’s have no sadness — furrowed brow.
There’s nothing new in dying now
Though living is no newer.

The poem was written in the poet’s own blood and found in the hotel room where he had committed suicide. Still, despite the tragical ending, the poem carries a seed of hope, like a silver dandelion seed floating aimlessly in the wind, because dying is nothing new and living no newer, and the sad parting brings reunion, and could there be a more hopeful thought? Death is not the end, not the end…